Friday, October 6, 2023

Robert W. Rix's "The Vanished Settlers of Greenland"

Robert W. Rix is Associate Professor and Director of Research at the University of Copenhagen. He is widely known for his prolific publication profile in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies. This includes areas such as politics, religion, language, nationalism, and print culture. Rix has also published on earlier periods, for example, The Barbarian North in Medieval Imagination Ethnicity, Legend, and Literature (2014).

Rix applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Vanished Settlers of Greenland: In Search of a Legend and Its Legacy, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains a discussion of the Dutch lawyer and historian Jan Jacob Mauricius and his tract, Naleesing over Groenland voor de historie van den Noorweeschen Erik [Rereading Greenland’s History concerning the Norwegian Erik], which he published in the early 1740s.

Mauricius criticizes the history of Erik the Red’s arrival in Greenland in the late tenth century to spearhead a purported large-scale colonization of Greenland. Mauricius had political motives for opposing this widely accepted narrative. The tract was published in the wake of a 1739 skirmish between a Danish naval vessel and four Dutch ships at Disko Bay over fishing rights. The battle was quickly over and resulted in Dutch surrender. Mauricius challenges Danish-Norwegian claims to all of Greenland (including its waters), defending the rights of all nations to the profitable whaling and fishing industry. Therefore, in a series of ‘discourses’, he sets out to prove that Danish historical claims to Greenland are based on spurious sagas and legends. Mauricius’ primary argument is that historians, allegedly sponsored by the Danish crown, have perpetuated an exaggerated legend about Erik the Red’s control over Greenland.

The Page 99 Test both works and it doesn’t. The argument that underpins the examination on page 99 is that Danish history writing at the time was more than just a straightforward reproduction of facts about the past; rather it aimed to construct a collective memory of Greenland that served a national agenda. This analysis is representative of the chapter as a whole, which deals with the political motives behind seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historiography. The analysis also gives the accidental browser who opens the book on this page a fair impression of what is at stake throughout the book. Controversy over rights to use Greenland and its waters centered on the history of the erstwhile settlers who were known to have farmed the land the centuries. However, contact with the colonists, who were considered subjects of the Dano-Norwegian crown, had been completely lost since the early fifteenth century. The book shows how Greenland was not only a Danish matter; it became a contested territory associated with colonial as well as semi-utopian desires throughout Europe and North America.

In some sense, the Page 99 Test would never fully succeed because of the disciplinary breadth and wide timespan the book covers. I track the mystery of the vanished Greenland colonists and the many theories of where they could be found from the late sixteenth century to the 1920s. The memory of Greenland’s “lost colony” was transmitted, interpreted, and negotiated not only in political discourses but also through numerous literary representations. Especially in the second half of the book, the focus is on novels and magazine stories (often adventure tales of the pulp fiction variety) that imagine explorers discovering the descendants of the lost colonists. In The Vanished Settlers of Greenland: In Search of a Legend and Its Legacy, I examine how the ‘lost colony’ lived on in Western imagination and attained an extensive narrative afterlife. The Dutch controversy over the accuracy of Greenland’s colonial history on page 99 is only one example of this.
Learn more about The Vanished Settlers of Greenland at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue